Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Should a fish be able to climb a tree?

This is a question I have been asking myself today as I sort through a lot of clutter that has been accumulating all over the house.

I never thought we would be the kind of house that would own something so naff as Letterland flashcards. And yet, there they sat on the shelf today, unused, taunting me with their educational-ness, and their shiny-packet-ness. Hated by the kids.

We have ended up with an awful lot of 'educational' stuff over the last few years. Some, panic bought by me, so I felt like I was being a good little home educator, some bought perhaps to impress the inspectors, family members, friends, or in my secret heart, myself. I am struck by what a waste of money so much of this stuff has turned out to be.

It's easy to get sucked into it, even if you think you're not that type. Little catalogues plop onto the doormat, with pages and pages of 'educational' toys, reading books, kits and tools. The premise behind them, is that they are designed to make learning FUN!!!!!! In capital letters. As if children do not naturally want to learn, so we need to sweeten their learning with as many all-singing-all-dancing toys as possible.  

The paranoia about under-stimulating kids can be seen most clearly in places like toys-r-us, early learning centre, and that most evil place of all, mothercare. No toy in these meccas of 'early learning materials' is deemed too plastic, too ugly, to bleepy, too pointless or badly made. The packaging proudly declares its usefulness, showing off its early learning tick-boxes, reassuring anxious parents who don't want their child to get left behind. Even if they are only 9 months old.

Ah, don't get me wrong, I have in my despair, even bought a few of these plastic fantastic toys, thinking they will hold some magic answer to a problem that, actually didn't really exist. Because the truth is this - kids don't need that many toys. They don't need to be entertained every minute of the day. They don't need to be educated every minute of the day.

I'm struck by how insulting it is to children to assume that we must spoonfeed them every morsel of knowledge, and give credit to the toys and learning aids that belongs to the kids themselves.

Who taught us to talk? To walk? Real live people. Can we claim it was really our toys? Or more likely, a variety of real live people, and real live situations. Through watching. Through listening. Through repetition. through a desire to take part, to connect, to join in with those real live people, those real live situations. We learnt to dothese things, and many other skills since, because we wanted to, needed to, were desperate, no matter how many times we fell down and bumped our heads, or used the wrong word, tense, or phrase.

We learnt because we loved our elders and peers, and wanted to interact with them. Because that is instinctive and natural behaviour. It didn't need to be jigged along with all-singing-all-dancing toys.

And so I get to thinking about post babyhood, and what skills are required then. MOstly they just want to be in good company, and play. Generally, little kids are true scientists. We tear our hair out when they start to pull our neatly constructed home apart, getting into every last corner and making the mother of all messes in their wake. They are eager to touch everything, taste everything, try out different combinations of items to see what happens, they experiment and play and play and play. They have great imaginations. They will role-play with the most  simple of objects, whether they relate to the action they are doing or not. A crayon becomes a candle on a pretend birthday cake. A bedsheet becomes an invisibility cloak. Kids will do this whether or not they have a fancy wooden cake set, or a piece of fabric with a Harry Potter branded label sewn into it. They are smart. It is we, who are a bit dumb in this respect.

As kids get older, they pass through the logistical phoney developmental milestone of starting school. I say this, because in real terms, five is not an internationally recognised magical developmental age. It's not scientifically proven to be anything special or different in terms of learning compared to say 4 or 6. It just happens to be the age, that here, in this country, a bunch of people have decided that learning needs to get serious. And so it happens several times down the line, as children enter different schools.

And people get really hung up on this. Forgetting that in fact, term times, school years, bla bla bla, are all invented according to a particular country's outlook, based on economics, based on parents convenience to be able to work. It's all made to look as if school is absolutely serious and necessary in the way that it is structured and what is being taught there. That any deviation from this is an absolute disaster. Any holiday in term time is seen as a 'waste' - oooh but they'll get so behind, they cry! Behind? Behind what? 

I would argue that teaching and learning are two very different things. Just because something is being taught, does not mean it is being learnt. Kids are super smart, creative and clever, but as they get older, it can become harder and harder for this to be recognised. I came across a fantastic quote today:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” 
 Albert Einstein

Who says we all have the have the exact same skill-set?

Who says every last kid has to be great at spelling, grammar and mathematical equations? Are we trying to create clones or celebrate individuals?

The tick boxes, the educational toys, the endless teaching of 'skills' are missing a vital point - 

- the world is full of interesting adults who come from different cultures, backgrounds, belief systems, who learn things in different systems where the age-appropriateness is calculated differently 

- when our kids grow up they may choose to live a myriad of different lifestyles, locally to where they grow up, elsewhere in the same country, or abroad - where the rules and ideas are different. Who knows what skills will prove to be genuinely useful in any number of different scenarios? 

- they don't have to learn everything at the exact same time, in the same year as their peers in order to avoid failure in life

- kids deserve more credit for their own learning than we give them. We like to credit everything they learn to ourselves or school, believing we have spoon-fed all their knowledge to them in the curricula we carefully devise for them, (from birth now, it seems)  but in fact, each child is hard-wired to learn and has a hunger to understand how the world works. they would find this stuff out anyway, even if you did not force feed it to them. 

- some of the greatest discoveries humans have made have occured by accident, by experimentation, by messing about, by trying and failing lots of times. That's getting harder and harder to do in a school/ work system that stigmatizes mistakes and failure and doesn't allow for them to occur. A system where there is often only one right answer to everything - so don't bother exporing the 1,000,000 other answers!!!

Learning occurs in different ways, at different times, and one size fits all means a lot of kids are wearing  an education things that doesn't quite fit.

Do we need flashcards to teach children how to spell stuff at age 3? Do they need to have eye-hand co-ordination at age 4? Must they always need to spell their own name by age 5?

We score pretty badly for such a 'developed' nation in academic terms and in happiness ratings. 


After all those years of being educated, what tick-boxes would the kids award to their own time in school? I wonder this about my own home environment, and ask the question of what materials are educational and what are a hindrance? 

A lot of our 'educational' games, are sitting on the shelf, untouched for months. In the meanwhile, the kids are busy, busy, busy.

How do you spell this? Can you help me make a 3D paper model? Let's visit so-and-so today. Let's bake some cookies. Can I do a bit more programming? They are forever making, doing, moving about. 

All five year old kids are curious, they ask endless questions, they are hungry to learn, to know, to pull the world apart and see how it works. Why does this dissappear? Is it simply that they become 'schooled'?

I come back to these video again and again, when I need to be reminded of the different skills that each child has, the different needs, the different journeys we are all on. That we are not all the same, so shouldn't all be educated the same. 

Kids are smarter than all these toys. They are smarter than school. Sure - they will learn a lot of good stuff there, but they'll most likely learn even more interesting stuff later on, in spite of it. Kids learn because they want to know. 

Trusting in kids is not something we're good at, as a society. We think them devious, sneaky, trying to wriggle out of stuff. And I'm just as bad. I get stressy when they want to learn their thing, when I can't own it, or take credit for it.

But kids are not bad. They just have a different agenda from ours. Who is to say this is bad? Who is to say, their agenda isn't more noble than our 'educational' one, devised to teach them what we *think* they should know.

What if the kids really do know better? Can we give up our need to be control freaks and trust in them? Do we need to be in a power struggle with them, one in which we must win, or else?

Or can learning be a more pleasant journey, a mutual exploration, based on trust, friendship and collaboration and experimentation? Are we brave enough to let go of schooly materials, which make us feel better and like some real education is going on here, when education already IS happening?


  1. You know what I am just so grateful we have chosen to home-educate. I'm only sad we didn't choose to earlier. I can't say we are getting it ALL right ALL of the time and we definitely have wobbly bad days but that's life. I think we are learning so much more than any national curriculum education. I think we are learning to think for ourselves more and more. I wonder if we have adopted this non-trusting attitude when it comes to children simply out of spending less and less time with them due to the need for more time to work to keep up with the cost of the more and more consumerism lifestyle that exists here in the UK?

  2. Yep, I think you're right. We don't get it right all the time either, but it's ok not to be perfect. If we were home edding to be super academic then the school-leaver stats aren't exactly hard to beat, but we're not aiming for that anyway. The goals and achievements we're aiming for relate to happiness and wellbeing, and helping our kids to find the courage and strength to live on their own terms, in their own good time, learning from all the people in their life, by living amongst people doing what they do, and following their diferent passions. And remembering that one day they will be someones lover, maybe someone's dad. It's not only about what job they might or might not be able to get :-)

    1. I hope by having the time to discover and nurture their interests and ultimately understand themselves better than they would if left in school pursuing someone else's curriculum at potentially the wrong pace and potentially in the wrong order for them will ultimately lead to a job/career/pursuits that will make them happy and will keep them enjoying life and learning which are of course the same thing.

  3. Lots of highly 'successful' people are actually miserable.

    1. Yeah I guess it depends on how you define and measure success x how's your back doing?

  4. Brilliant article! It's such a shame more parents can't let go and allow their children room to grow and learn. I was also talking about fish climbing trees back in my January blog (http://rossmountney.wordpress.com) It's a subject close to most home educators hearts I think! My blog's there for help and support with home educating if any of your readers need it. All the very best. x

  5. Hi there Ross - I am really honoured you took the time to read and comment here - I have been reading your articles for years, and have really enjoyed them all. Didn't realise you were blogging too! Am I right in thinking you don't live a million miles from here (We're near Long Sutton) :-)

  6. Here, here! Well said! Bravo! And all the other verbal accolades my brain refuses to remember right now...

    We do have lots of toys and educational 'stuff' - having acquired much of it secondhand it bothers me less if I've made a wrong purchase.

    That said, I'm still discerning! Some of the 'stuff' you come across to 'teach' kids with is just appallingly reductionist - treating skills as little individual cogs in a human machine rather than supporting the organic nature of learning. We only buy when there are multiple ways of using the toy - I don't want to raise a one-trick child so no one-trick toys for us!

    Also, absolutely can't see the point in making us all jacks/jills-of-all-trades when the increasing complexity of the world is requiring that less and less. And yep, all that concentrating on our weaknesses does is make us unhappy - it's in elevating our own strengths that we contribute most to our own lives and the wider world.

  7. You have summed it up beautifully Lily. Not all educational material is inherently bad, the more open ended the better - some toys sold under the educational label leave more room for interpretation and experimentation than others - lego, duplo 'educational' box-sets (that have cogs, pulleys, gears, etc etc... Some things billing themselves as educational are so completely boring and have such a singular use that there's no room for the child to discover anything themselves. stuff like board games is cool - Indie is learning to multipy playing endless games of yahtzee at the mo.... and we love chess and scrabble, boggle and other games where the idea is to use numbers and letters creatively :-)